Ways To Say “I Don’t Know” and Still Sound Intelligent
Most of us spend a big chunk of the working day in meetings. And whenever we’re with other people, we have an opportunity to demonstrate we have presence and impact… or that we don’t.
So it’s no surprise that our reputations are built up or tarnished in these everyday occurrences.
The fear of getting it wrong
In fact, meetings are filled with situations that can go very right, or very wrong.
One of my big fears was getting asked a question that I didn’t know the answer to. The fear of getting it wrong used to paralyze me in meetings and keep me from participating at all. I figured if I wasn’t the person in the hot seat, then no one could put me on the spot.
But that way of thinking was not helping me get promoted, paid, or recognized. In fact, it made me look more junior than I really was.
Doing the homework
The next step I took was to do the homework to feel prepared. Sounds sensible, right?
Well, while that is definitely a good idea, the problem is there is always another bit of research you can do and it’s impossible to cover all the bases.
I ended up staying up way past my bedtime anticipating possible questions and figuring out possible answers. This resulted in my being so exhausted the next day that my brain wasn’t at its best, and my meeting performance suffered.
Even though 80% of the possible questions I had prepared for never even got asked, I still felt better being prepared. But that left the problem of getting enough sleep.
That’s when I started delegating the research to my juniors. While I got to bed a little earlier, they didn’t. And they found out that most of their research was unnecessary overkill.
This resulted in my getting a reputation for “killing people” with work that didn’t need to be done. All in the name of being prepared. Or in this case, over-prepared.
Admitting you don’t know is fine…
In the end, my husband convinced me that it was okay to admit that I didn’t know the answer in a meeting, and my “get out of jail” stock phrase became, “I don’t know, but let me get back to you.”
… but it only takes you so far
That worked for a while, but then I started getting asked for my opinion on issues that weren’t directly in my area of expertise, which at the time was the bond markets. Things like, “What did you think of our competitor’s acquisition announcement this morning?” or “How will equity investors view this?”
I was becoming too senior not to have an opinion, even on matters outside of my “wheelhouse”.
Plus, I discovered that while it’s okay to admit you don’t know the answer to something, there’s a limit to how many times you can say that in a meeting before people start thinking, “does she know anything at all?”
If I wanted to be seen as ready for promotion to the next level up, I needed to have a reputation for being effective in meetings, being able to think on my feet, and handle whatever got thrown my way.
The temptation to “wing it”…
There’s also the opposite approach, which is to make it up on the fly and just “wing it”.
Having seen some truly amazing examples of this in business school, I still marvel at people who could sound impressive in class and then you find out that they hadn’t even read the case materials. How on earth do they do that?!
As an aside, the guy who did this the best also happened to be the one we voted to represent our section in the Student Government. But that’s another topic altogether.
… can put your reputation at risk
Personally, I could never make this work. It’s just not in my cautious and perfectionist nature to risk giving my clients advice that I hadn’t thought through and brand it as a certainty.
If it’s in your DNA, then proceed with caution. My experience is in the real world (as opposed to the “bubble” of business school), people who “wing it” will find that it ultimately catches up with them. At some point they get found out and discredited. And that’s a reputational dent that’s hard to overcome.
The third way
Since saying “I don’t know” and just “winging it” both have their limitations, it’s worthwhile to find what I call “the third way” to handle these meeting situations.
One that allows you to operate with integrity yet present yourself with confidence even in the face of questions you don’t know the answers to, or to which there is no “right answer”.
So, once you’ve anticipated the likely questions you may be asked and nailed those, the secret to putting yourself in a position to handle everything else is this: equip yourself with a toolkit of “go to” phrases that allow you to say “I don’t know” and still sound intelligent, confident, and on top of your game.
“Go to” phrases
It took me a long time to come across these phrases, and I wish I had had them sooner.
This would have taken the fear out of meetings, given me back some precious hours of sleep, improved my reputation (certainly with junior team members), and helped me be seen as “promotion ready” sooner.
Choose a few and experiment with them to see which ones work best for you.
Here are some options for the first part of the phrase:
- My instinct is…
- Here’s my hypothesis…
- In my experience…
- My gut tells me…
- My off-the-cuff reaction is…
- One way to look at this is…
- A parallel situation to look at is…
- In matters like this, I like to go back to first principles…
- In the most recent deal we did,…
- In most cases,….
- It’s the kind of thing that could go either way, but I lean toward…
Then you end with your caveat, which could be something like:
- … but it depends on the context and I’d like to reflect and come back with a more considered view
- … but let us come back and confirm that
- … but I’d be happy to do some more work and come back if that helps
- … but it’s a very nuanced issue and I’d want to do some more analysis if this is something you want to act on
Come across as confident and intelligent
Next time you find yourself worrying about how to field those unknown questions at a meeting, or debating whether to admit you don’t know or to try and “wing it”, just pull out your favorite go to phrases and you’ll be all set.
Having these phrases at your disposal can help you come across as confident and intelligent when you don’t know the answer but need to make an educated guess or have a point of view. And they’ll help you build a personal brand and reputation of being someone senior with expertise who can hold their own in a meeting.
You’ll be glad you have them in your arsenal.
Leave a comment and let me know what you think.
This post really hits the spot.
I have been going through the awkward situations you described and have tried the two extremes: winging and over-preparing. Neither feels satisfactory. I have struggling to come up with a better way. Your “third way” is the solution I have been looking for. I have seen people do this in meetings, but never picked it up. Thanks a million for pointing this out. You saved my sleep and showed the way to turn meetings into opportunities. Truly an amazing post!
That’s great, Tom – glad this “hit the spot”!
Let me know which combination of phrases you think works best for you.
My favorite combo is “In matters like this, I like to go back to first principles…” + “… let us come back and confirm that.”
Thinking in terms of principles has that sophisticated, intellectual feel that people associate with strategic thinkers. Ending with a phrase that concisely calls for action projects confidence and decisiveness.
Completely agree with your cogent analysis, Tom.
Liked this very much. Many are too insecure to do anything but wing it. The business world is too diverse and fast-moving to know it all., so these options are a great suggestion.